Land-locked Utah doesn't offer many places to scuba dive outside of Great Salt Lake, but the state still has a reef for travelers to visit. Swimsuits and scuba gear are completely unnecessary though. Most people think of "reef" as meaning a coral structure in the ocean, but an older sense is "obstruction" or "barrier" to travel. When the first surveyors, explorers, and pioneers came across Utah's Water Pocket Fold it was nearly impassable so they called it a reef. In one part of the national park, white rock formations with rounded shapes look similar to the domes of capitol buildings, thus Capitol Reef. Today, visitors can stay in a fantastic campground, see incredible landscapes, take thrilling hikes, and learn about Utah's history.

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What's So Special About Capitol Reef National Park And Is It Worth Visiting?

Utah is home to the "Mighty Five" national parks. Travelers in this state can visit Bryce Canyon, Arches, Canyonland, Zion, and Capitol Reef. With destinations as jaw-droppingly beautiful as the first four, some people wonder if smaller, less popular Capitol Reef is worth the visit. The answer is a resounding, YES!

Capitol Reef's astounding geological formations and u-pick fruit orchards make this national park unique. After visiting, this is what C.G. wrote in his Google Review: "This is my new favorite National Park. The Fremont River makes this an unexpected oasis. I enjoy the smallness of the park and hikes ranging from easy to more challenging. Hickman Bridge Trail takes you to a large accessible arch. I was able to pick apples and apricots in one of the orchards. Amazing views from any of the ridge hikes and at least one hike along a wash in a slot canyon is a must, weather permitting. The drive from Hanksville was a geological wonder...Torrey, UT is the closest town, small but cute and worth an afternoon explore and evening dinner."

Capitol Reef is long and skinny--around 60 miles long, but on average, just 6 miles wide. It follows the Water Pocket Fold. Here, the Earth's crust folded over itself in an s-shape, creating places where older layers of sediment are on top of younger. The fold formed about 65 million years old, not long after the extinction of the dinosaurs. Today, visitors see it as a rocky spine along the Fremont River. The sandstone rock formations include gorgeous canyons, cliffs, towers, domes, arches, and washes.

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Fremont Native Americans who lived in the valley grew corn, beans, and squash. They stored their crops in small rock huts that people can still see today. Their artists left petroglyphs on the rock walls as well. This ancient culture abandoned the area about 700 years ago during a harsh drought, but it's fascinating to see the marks they left on the landscape and imagine what their lives were like.

Later on, Latter-Day-Saint pioneers made it to the luscious green valley. They planted fruit and nut trees on their farms from the 1880s to the 1950s. The park service maintains these historic orchards filled with heirloom fruit and the spot is on the National Registry of Historic Places. The caretakers use the same traditional farming methods as the pioneers. Park visitors can pick seasonal fruits like cherries, walnuts, chestnuts, peaches, pears, apples, and more. There are ladders and fruit pickers available to help. After harvesting, park visitors must weigh their bounty and pay the indicated amount before leaving the orchard. This is something no other Utah Park offers.

Practical Info For Planning A Trip to Capitol Reef

Although Capitol Reef is not as busy as Utah's other national parks travelers should still plan ahead because the park fills up quickly in high season.

Capitol Reef is open year-round and the Visitors' Center is open daily. People planning a visit can stay at one of the park's three campgrounds--La Fruita, Cathedral Valley, or Cedar Mesa Campground. La Fruita is the only developed campground at the park with flush toilets and running water. People reserve the 70 or so sites at this campground months before visiting to ensure a spot. Those who want to opt for more comfortable lodging should reserve a hotel in Torrey, Utah.

  • Park admission: $20 for a car and all its occupants
  • Visitors' Center hours: 8 PM - 4:30 PM
  • Special permits: free permits for backpacking and rock climbing at the Visitors' Center
  • Camping at La Fruita: $25 per night
  • More information: Park website

The peak seasons are spring and fall. Throughout March and April, flowering orchards stun park-goers with their incredible, delicate beauty. The autumn harvest draws many, looking to try heirloom varieties of cherries, apricots, peaches, apples, and pears unavailable elsewhere.

Best times to see flowers:

  • Apricots (early): February 27 - March 20
  • Apricots (regular): March 7 - April 13
  • Peaches: March 26 - April 23
  • Cherries: March 31 - April 19
  • Pears: March 31 - May 3
  • Apples: April 10 - May 6

When to pick fruit:

  • Cherries: June 11 - July 7
  • Apricots (early): June 27 - July 22
  • Apricots (regular): June 28 - July 31
  • Peaches: August 4 - September 6
  • Pears: August 7 - September 8
  • Apples: September 4 - October 17

Hikers and rock climbers will find plenty of areas to enjoy in Capitol Reef and may want to spend as much as a week or more in the national park. It will take at least three days to visit each of the park's three districts--La Fruita, Water Pocket District, and Cathedral Valley. Each district features a scenic drive for travelers to explore and people could drive one each day of their visit. People passing through the area for just a day should spend their time in La Fruita.

Scenic drives in Capitol Reef

  • La Fruita Scenic Drive: 7.9 miles on a paved road, lasts about an hour and a half
  • Loop-The-Fold Driving Tour: 124-mile loop on dirt roads, drive time is generally 4-6 hours
  • The Cathedral Valley Driving Loop Tour: 57.6-mile loop on dirt roads, 6-8 hours to complete

next: These National Parks Are Actually Better When Visited During The Winter Months